Thursday, October 13, 2011
Next time you need a toolshed, sauna, shower house, sugar shack, chicken coop, or other small building, you might construct it from recycled materials. You would save money, protect the environment, and exercise your creativity. You might even end up making a split-level cabin, as artist and builder Matt Bua has done at bHome, the wooded property in Greene County that is part art studio, part construction laboratory.
Since he started moving up his cache of foraged building materials from his Brooklyn studio in 2007, Bua has built an assortment of unorthodox structures, made mostly from discarded materials and natural substances.
We're standing in front of the “slab shed”, cobbled together from aluminum sheets from a letterpress shop, wood off-cuts and rounds that a sawmill would otherwise burn or grind into sawdust, and the front door that formerly graced a friend's house.
“I think of some of these as permanent bug-free tents,” confides Bua, who often collaborates on structures. “I like to put the roof on, then someone will finish it and sleep in it. This building was a toolshed until an intern from Tennessee came and wanted to study with me. I gave him a staplegun and mosquito netting, and he stayed in it for three months.”
Rolls of screening to protect from mosquitoes are among the few items Bua purchases for his projects.
His friend Lisa-Marie Ludwig is working on an earthbag bunker. She has stacked poly bags filled with dirt to form the walls. The plan is create a low corridor leading to a circular chamber with a domed roof, so the building will ultimately resemble an igloo.
One elegant little structure features a wall of pine off-cuts and another wall of shingles made from scraps of medium-density overlay, the substance used to build art crates. The door is made with narrow sticks from old-fashioned lathe-and-plaster construction, thrown out when buildings are renovated.
Bua describes his genesis as a builder: “When I was a kid, I dragged a dresser into the woods and put a piece of plywood on top. Then it rained, and I realized a roof is a great thing. Then you make it into a warm place, and then you figure out--how can you warm it with the least amount of wood?”
He honed his skills by working for seven years with installation artist Jesse Bercowitz. They collaborated on large-scale installation projects at museum sites such as PS1, the Museum of Modern Art annex in New York City; Mass MoCa in North Adams, MA; and the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, PA.
Restoration carpenter Stephen Hren of Durham, NC, also taught him a thing or two, including not to use drywall screws on external walls and the best way to install a post. Bua explains, “You dig a hole and line it with landscaping cloth, put in six inches of rubble for drainage, and tamp it down. It won't heave in the frost. Black locust, cedar, and pressure-treated wood are good for resisting rot.”
Hren and his wife, Rebekah, are authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), blending sustainable building with procedures for getting off the grid, from the easy to the complex.
Bua's style of building is ideal for making use of low-impact technology, such as the simple, two-story shower mechanism in the shower house. A slanted plexiglass roof collects water and spills it into a barrel. From there, a hose conveys the water to a shower head on the lower level.
There are two saunas on the property, illustrating Bua's willingness to learn through experimentation. One sauna is small and efficient, accommodating no more than four people. The other is more luxurious, with wood platforms on two levels and an elegant ceiling of cedar strips originally cut for an interlocking grid system and found in a dumpster. To make the cordwood walls, he embedded old fenceposts in mortar mixed with sawdust. Built partially below ground level for natural insulation, the sauna has a serious design flaw—the large rocks that jut out of the floor and suck up heat from the recycled woodstove.
“So when we're not using it as a sauna, it doubles as a root cellar,” says Bua philosophically, nodding at the side bench, which holds jars of elderberry jam and tomatoes that he and his partner, Laura Anderson, have canned. “Ironically, it stays nice and cool in here.”
The largest structure on the property is the cabin. The exterior is made largely of scrap wood, recycled windows, and strips of metal roofing. A cordwood foundation supports the upper level. Inside are several earth plaster walls that overlay straw bale insulation. Earth plaster, says Bua, is mixed from one part clay, three to four parts sand, and finely chopped straw—“enough straw till you're happy.”
One of the plaster walls is embedded with colored bottles in a design by Anderson. Aside from the beauty of the green and blue light they transmit, the bottles have their own insulating properties and are often combined with wood in cordwood walls.
In the office, Bua has employed books for insulation by building bookcases into the walls and enclosing them with glass-paneled doors.
Over the back door, a metal awning is lined with flashing created from Coors cans.
When starting a recycled building project, Bua suggests asking a few questions: “How much energy do you feel like putting into it? How many people do you have to help you? What is the terrain like? What kind of materials do you have on hand? The foundation is the most difficult thing. It's simplest to dig holes and put poles in to support a post-and-beam floor. But you couldn't do that if you're planning to built with heavy materials like cob,” an adobe-like mixture of clay, sand, straw, water, and earth.
The environment may furnish materials. Perhaps your soil has a high clay content, or you live near a horse farm with straw readily available, or you have lots of rocks. Such factors will influence your decisions, observes Bua. For sources of castoff manmade materials, cultivate a relationship with employees at town dumps, sawmills, construction sites, local contractors.
“With this style of intuitive building,” he says, “a lot depends on what you want it to function as and how long you hope it's going to stay.”
Violet Snow Fall 2011